The Alp D’Huez Long Course Triathlon is the most physically draining event I have ever completed in. With a 2.2k swim, a 120k ride over three brutal climbs and a 21k run over an undulating cross country course, I’ve done longer events but none match this due to the heat and draining climbs. The race was a bucket list event which was never in my bucket. In fact, I had no idea it even existed until I received a message from my old training buddy Jenna asking me if I’d like to do it. As it had been over a year since my previous triathlon and the thought of training through a Tasmanian winter for a race in July in France wasn’t high on my list of priorities, my initial reaction was no way. After a couple of weeks of persuasion, coupled with the fact that I could combine the race with a twelve day Bikestyle Tour of the Pyrenees and French Alps, I caved in and agreed. Sadly, after all that, Jenna had to miss the race due to a blood clot lodged in her thigh from an old knee injury. Thankfully, her and husband Stu made the trip anyway to act as my cheer squad.
The swim was in Lake Vermey, a hydro lake normally forbidden to swim in as the turbines would mince people up. To help swimmers enter and exit the water, thick runner mats were laid down and teams of volunteers were on standby to haul you out at the end. At 15.9 degrees the water temperature was on the chilly side, but an extra swim cap and the fact that Tassie water isn’t exactly tropical meant I got through it ok.
I’d looked at the bike course profile and read the course notes translation from French. The side elevation of the first two climbs didn’t look too daunting as neither of them was as high as the final climb up the Alp D’Huez. This was a serious miscalculation by me, as the first 25k was pretty much all downhill, meaning I hadn’t factored in the extra climbing. The first climb, up the aptly named Col du Morte was 13k at an average of 6-7% gradient. It was a tough slog but I got up ok and reached the first major aid station. Unlike most triathlons where volunteers run next to the bikes and hand out drinks, bananas and energy bars, this was a very relaxed affair with most competitors parking their bikes and helping themselves to a smorgasbord. As well as the normal items, this one strangely included ham, cheese and sausage. As a rule, you’d normally avoid stuff like this the day before a race let alone during, but I guess this is France. They take their food very seriously. After a short descent, the course climbed again but only for a short distance. I mistakenly assumed this was the top of the second climb and that I’d get a nice decent to the bottom of the final climb. How wrong I was. Take home message: always read the course notes thoroughly. Or buy a Garmin with the course pre programmed so as to avoid surprises. When I eventually reached the second climb, I was gutted. It was also 13k, and although not quite as steep as the first, the heat and lack of shade caused me to suffer. I started to worry as to whether I’d be able to finish or just end u broken and weeping by the side of the road. When I reached Bourg D’Ousins, the town at the base of the final climb I accidentally took a wrong turn and rode 1.5k before realising my error and turning back to rejoin the course. It was my own stupid fault for riding straight past a course marshall, but I wish he’d made some effort to call me back. I didn’t realise until later the implications this would have on my race.
I had been warned the the final climb up Alp D’Huez to the start of the run course resembled a battlefield, and it didn’t disappoint. Broken riders were slumped over their handlebars, leaning against the barrier wall staring vacantly into space and a couple were even attempting to walk the 13k in their bike cleats. I used the Robbie McEwen climbing method of not looking up and concentrating just on breathing and pedalling. I was lucky to have my amazing cheer squad of Stu, Jenna and her Mum Janice to encourage me when I reached the last six turns. I was a couple of hours slower than my estimated arrival time, and they had used the down time to consume a fair amount of alcohol. Stu even gave me an illegal push.
When I reached the run transition, I was surprised to see two race technical officials blocking my way in. One of them said, ‘finish, no run.’ Apparently I’d missed the bike finish cutoff by 15 minutes. In case I didn’t get the picture, he removed my race number from my race belt and tore it in half before letting me in to rack my bike. I was absolutely gutted. After racking my bike however, I figured that I still had my race timing chip attached to my leg and numbers on my arm and leg in texta. I’m a much better runner than cyclist and decided to risk starting the run and hope I didn’t get caught. I totally understand why cutoffs exist, race volunteers have a tough job and can’t be out on the course all night. As I could see quite a few competitors walking however, I backed myself to push the first couple of laps hard and make up the deficit to put as many people behind me as possible. Fortunately, it worked. I started unlapping myself straight away. At the end of my first lap, the girl handing out wrist scrunchies attempted to give me one for completing my second lap. (They hand these out to ensure runners have completed their laps before entering the finish chute.) I indicated I had just finished my first, and she pointed me to a second girl in charge of the first lap scrunchies. She looked surprised as shee had clearly knocked off for the day, but gave me one anyway. I was worried that an official would wake up to my missing race number and pull me off the course but figured that as long as I was running strongly the chances would reduce the further I got. By the second lap I had made up the more of the time deficit and started overtaking quite a few who had stopped to walk.
Inside the last few kilometres, I was worried that the officials might have a list of who should and shouldn’t be on the course. I had visions of Jane Saville getting pulled off the walk in Sydney 2000 in sight of the finish line, and decided my best chance of slipping through would be to finish in a group. Unfortunately, in the last two ks, every time I caught someone they’d stop to walk. I tried to encourage one guy to run with me but he stopped, waved me on and told me he was broken. Fortunately, the plan worked. I found a guy to stick with in the finish chute. He looked a bit confused as to why I was cheering him on to beat me, but I as soon as I crossed the line we both grabbed our medals and finisher tee shirts. There’s a good chance I won’t be included in the official results, but I don’t care. I finished and had plenty of people behind me. A 2.04 half marathon on a tough hilly course after a brutal ride is something I’ll always have to my name.
When my cheer squad found me wandering in a fugue state as I exited the finish area, I had a reasonably teary meltdown. I cursed the French and their ridiculously strict cutoff times and the unfairness of my disqualification. They pointed out to me that: A- I had my finisher medal and tee shirt and that B: I had actually completed the entire race and that there were still competitors on the course. We then spent around an hour looking for place to eat dinner with me being led around like a tame zombie.
As a post script, when the results came out, I was classified as a finished. I’d love to send a photo of me and my finisher medal to Henri L’Bastard the nasty Technical Official one day.